In the visual world, Harry Peccinotti is the epitome of a Renaissance man. As an artist, graphic designer, art director and photographer, he created a distinctive style in the 1960s that feels as fresh as ever— and is as mimicked as ever—today. His work captures women’s bodies and faces in a graphic, almost abstract way that has earned him the nickname “Mr Close-Up”. Despite a career that has spanned the art direction of Vogue, Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone, the creation of iconic title sequences for films including Alfie and Chappaqua, the founding of the groundbreaking magazine Nova, the almost single-handed introduction of models of colour into the fashion mainstream, and photographic commissions from the Pirelli calendar to the Vietnam War, the London-born, Paris-based legend was a bit shy when Dapper Dan visited him at home.
Motwary: You were a school dropout at 14? How did you end up becoming a photographer?
Peccinotti: I wasn’t really a dropout. My school stopped. It was just after the [Second World] war and I got a job in a factory, in the design department. That was in 1950, or just before. At that time, the design department in a factory did everything: technical drawings, paintings, illustration, lettering, photography. Everything had to be learnt, which nowadays one can do very easily with the help of computers, but there was no Letraset or photo-setting then.
Motwary: Didn’t all of those technical elements require a certain skill to pull them together?
Peccinotti: The art teacher at school suggested that I was good at drawing, and when I was about to leave school, she said, “So what are you going to do?” Where I come from, there were not so many opportunities. She sent me to her husband, the creative director of Smiths Motor Accessories and a Royal Academician [artist-member of the Royal Academy of Arts]. He did beautiful watercolours, a bit like Terence Cuneo. So I went for an interview. He looked at my collection of drawings and said ok, and it started like that. I was like a dogsbody.
The commercial artists there were very good teachers so I learnt photography, hand lettering, technical drawing, illustration, how to make a pot of tea… a bit of everything, all by hand. It was an apprenticeship in graphic design. Art directors didn’t exist then. I did that for three or four years and then, around 1955, I became a musician for a bit.
Motwary: You also designed some album covers?
Peccinotti: Around 1954, I was playing music, as a trombonist and bassist, and I met a drummer who owned Esquire Records. They were the first to import modern jazz from America to London—Thelonious Monk, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker. So this drummer asked me to design record sleeves for him. But he was blind. He was called Carlo Krahmer, and was a very good drummer—in fact quite famous. His wife and her assistant, the writer and singer Kitty Grime, were in charge of the record covers, and they could see perfectly well. Just to drop names, Ralph Steadman and Diz Disley were also designing record sleeves for Esquire at that time.
Motwary: One of my favourite jazz musicians was also blind—Moondog.
Peccinotti: Of course, I remember him. He used to stand around on 6th Avenue, near Radio City [Music Hall], dressed as a Viking, reciting poetry and playing farout music. So, after that I got a job in an advertising agency and worked as an art director for quite a few years, and then moved into magazines. In the mid-’50s and early ’60s, designers became interested in magazine design, which was aiming at a younger audience.
Before this time, models were mostly over 20—there was no real market for teenagers as they had little money. If you look at issues of Vogue up until the early ’60s, there was nothing aiming at teenage girls, other than maybe a page for a debutante. But after that, teens had some money, so advertisers and magazines had to take notice.
Motwary: How did you end up focusing on erotic photography?
Peccinotti: I never purposely took erotic pictures. Of course, I liked women and photographed them, and my photos probably have some sexual interest, but they never set out to be erotic, just graphic.
Motwary: How would you describe the ’60s?
Peccinotti: I suppose it was breakdown time from all previous restrictions. It was like the Berlin Wall coming down. I was brought up with a very strict moral attitude towards sex, but the ’60s broke all the constraints. Freedom! There was a lot of innovation and excitement in the arts and music—anything seemed possible.
Motwary: Recently I had a conversation with one of your oldest friends, Hans Feurer, on the power of Nova magazine [in Dapper Dan 05]. Can you give me your take on it? What was Nova about?
Peccinotti: Nova started as an experiment. Can you really imagine I said that? It sounds very stupid. It came out in 1965. The thinking behind it came from the fact that there were no magazines at the time for intelligent women. All the magazines treated women like they were drudges and housewives, and focused on subjects like cooking and knitting. But the women’s liberation movement was strong at the time and there were a lot of good female writers. Nova’s aim was to talk about what women were really interested in: politics, careers, health, sex. George Newnes, a large press company, threw some money in, just to see if anyone was interested in a magazine like that, and so it started. The good thing about that was that we were left alone to do it. And it wasn’t a fashion magazine at all! In fact, there was no fashion in the first issues. I put the fashion in, not as fashion, but because the magazine was all words. I said, “We need to lighten it up a bit, even if it’s just 10 pages on different-coloured paper, or a Pantone chart or mad colourful pictures. You need something, when you flip through the magazine, to catch your eye.” So we said, “Ok, we’ll do a fashion thing, but it won’t have anything to do with advertising. We’ll do trend, street style.” You could do army clothes, home-made styles; you could do anything you liked.
Motwary: How different it is from magazines today?
Peccinotti: I think it was very different then, but less so now. 20 Times have changed and maybe there’s no necessity for a women’s magazine today. Back then, a lot of men read Nova, apparently.
Motwary: How difficult was it to find women to pose naked in the ’60s?
Peccinotti: It wasn’t that difficult. But also, I think the model-photographer relationship those days was much closer than it is now. I remember, [Terence] Donovan once told me, “When the model makes more money than the photographer, I will give up photography.”
I used to know the models; they were my friends. I used to have a drink with them and see them around Chelsea. Nowadays models fly in for 10 minutes and then fly out again. And no one has a studio today—back then, most photographers had their own. Girls would come for a cup of coffee; maybe they would ask you to take a few shots of them on the spot, for fun, and you would do it. There was a relationship. Models now are on a different level. Now I find it hard to be friends with the girls I shoot. Sometimes I take a picture of somebody and the only time I speak to them is on the set. Then it’s kiss-kiss and they’re gone.
Motwary: What do you find so fascinating about nudity? There’s something about your angle…
Peccinotti: Being a man, I am attracted to women, and I love women of all colours and shapes and sizes. I don’t have an attitude towards it apart from graphisme. Photographers who were or are also art directors seem to have a different eye, as we were trained through painting and art. I am much more influenced by painters.
Motwary: You are one of the few who shot the legendary Pirelli calendar not once but twice. How did that work out?
Peccinotti: I worked a lot with certain art directors, and one especially, Derek Birdsall, who was the original art director for Pirelli. He asked me to do it. At that time it was not a big-money thing—it was made very cheaply. In fact, I didn’t have an assistant, hairdresser or make-up artist. And for the one we shot in America, I didn’t have even a model!
We just used people on the beach. It was much more about the moment, which is very different from now. It was supposed to be sexually oriented, of course, but it had a different attitude. The first one we did was quite intellectual, really [1968; each photograph was an interpretation of a poem]. The second one  I stupidly suggested going to California, because I had been there two years before, working on a film. And said, “Oh, we’ll find girls. There are so many young surfers on the beach, we can just go and shoot it.” So I convinced them. But when we went, all the girls were on holiday, and the ones we found were only on the beach when they should have been at summer school. But we found a few and did it.
Motwary: Before that, you documented the Vietnam War, right? What was that like?
Peccinotti: I got there by chance. It was 1966. I was upset about the whole Vietnam thing, thinking it was a disaster, and one day I was sitting in the [Nova] office and suggested jokingly that I should go and see for myself. The next day the chief editor, Dennis Hackett, a super guy, said, “Ok, you wanna fly, off you go. We got it covered for you.” I think they made a deal with the Black Star photo agency for any action pictures I took. The object for me was to do a story on Medevac [medical evacuation of soldiers]. It was a bit stressful to say the least. The South Vietnamese soldiers often took their families along to their outpost. And after the Viet Cong would come, the Medevac people would go in and pick up the wounded. Very often they would bring back the wives and children too, and take them to the hospital, where they would take care of their wounded family members.
The idea was, since Nova was a women’s magazine, we wanted to show what was happening to the wives. It was really scary. I hadn’t thought it through properly before I went. It was hard.
Motwary: How were you feeling at the time?
Peccinotti: I was wrecked. The whole thing disgusted me. It only lasted for a month or so. I would never go to another war to photograph under any circumstances, that’s for sure.
Motwary: What was your childhood like? How did your parents see what you do?
Peccinotti: I was brought up in a working-class home in London. And they were not interested in the things I was doing. It was just a question of going to work, for someone my age. My education really started when I left school—then, luckily, everyone I came across was incredibly good and taught me everything, really, from what to eat to what to do.
Motwary: Who was the most important mentor or guide for you, then?
Peccinotti: The very first people I worked with, in the art department, had a design background and put me in touch with the Bauhaus, Dada and de Stijl. I became a Mondrian fanatic and used to go to Holland some weekends, when I was about 17, just to see the trees and lighthouses that he had painted in Zeeland. The first person who really educated me was Robin Jacques, who made wonderful Victorian-style illustrations with little dots. He was famous back then and used to do a lot of work for the Radio Times and the Folio Society. His sister was the actress Hattie Jacques. So I was introduced to their circle. We were working in the same room in the advertising agency and remained friends until he died a few years ago.
He introduced me to many people and things: Francis Bacon, John Le Mesurier, Samuel Beckett and so on. He suggested things to read, plays to see, music to listen to. He was really like my private tutor until the end of his life.
Motwary: After so many years, what does photography still do for you?
Peccinotti: I suppose it’s my method of expression. When I take a picture, the picture tells me what to do. It reveals itself. It’s sort of self-teaching. The enthusiasm starts as I look through the viewfinder. It’s always been the same. Even now, when I walk down the street, pictures call out to me. I carry a digital camera asa notebook—I’d like to know more about digital cameras. Every now and then I’m bullied professionally to use them. But I think there is something missing in digital. I have nothing in my hands when I’ve finished.
Self-portrait © Harry Peccinotti